How Forgiveness Should Inform Criminal Justice

What would it look like if prison was a place of transformation, not punishment?

That’s the vision that Harold Dean Trulear, Director of the Healing Communities Prison Ministry, has for the prison system. At a recent lecture, Trulear encouraged Christians to lead the way in public discussions that rethink the role of the criminal justice system and invest energy in government reform of incarceration policies.

Trulear went on to argue that the revenge-based retribution that seems to be the ethos of our criminal justice system needs to be replaced by a system based on restorative justice. Restorative justice sees justice as fundamentally about restoring individuals and reconciling relationships rather than simply following abstract legal principles.

The justice of our prison systems should be of increasing public concern. The  statistics are grim. As of 2009, the U.S. had the  highest incarceration rate in the world (0.743 percent). Two-thirds of former prisoners repeat offenses within three years of confinement, and more than half are re-incarcerated in the same time. In light of these bleak realities, the ideas of restorative justice might seem to herald a promising - even Christ-like - solution for change.

But can such an idealistic ethic work for public justice? Is forgiveness something that governments can do, and if so, is it even desirous for them to do so? In other words, can restorative justice ideas begin to inform the way public justice is done, especially in the context of the government’s criminal justice work?

In an article addressing these questions, philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff answers, in short, yes. By his account, forgiveness is about affirming wrongdoers as guilty, yet treating them as if one had excused them as innocent. Governments are accountable to God to uphold public justice, but governments can also be wronged by both citizens and other governments. Therefore, governments are also capable of forgiveness. He cites examples: executive pardons for prisoners that U.S. presidents have judged to have exceedingly admirable character despite their deserved imprisonment, the cancellation of foreign countries’ financial debts, and the reconciliatory work that was accomplished by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

If a restorative rather than simply retributive justice ethic is warranted within the government’s domain of responsibility for public justice, then how does it translate into the context of the criminal justice system?

  Inmates take a class as part of the Education Justice Project. (Photo courtesy of I-STEM Education Initiative)

Inmates take a class as part of the Education Justice Project. (Photo courtesy of I-STEM Education Initiative)

1) Restorative justice requires respecting human dignity.

In any act of forgiveness, reconciliation begins with recognizing that the person who wronged you remains a human being with inherent dignity, regardless of the severity of the wrongdoing. We can recognize that some level of harsh treatment can actually be compatible with forgiving and respecting the human dignity of one who has wronged you; in fact, in many cases it can be recognized as an important first step in restorative justice. Respect for human dignity, in other words, sets the parameters for what a measured, restorative response would actually involve.

We can also affirm that restorative justice certainly doesn’t preclude some level of restriction of the personal freedoms of offenders, but it can challenge some existing structures that may be dehumanizing towards offenders. For example,  ensuring reasonable costs for making phone calls to maintain connectivity with friends and family is an easy way to affirm dignity. Consideration of human dignity would also lead us to see the need for policy-makers to address the issue of overcrowded, dehumanizing prison conditions and to continue to explore alternatives to incarceration, especially for low-risk, nonviolent offenders. Also, if the larger goal of the criminal justice system is recognized as correctional and restorative rather than punitive, emphasis ought to continue to be placed on equipping prisoners through education to return to society as productive citizens.

2) Restorative justice should be seen as a process.

Restorative justice in the criminal justice system should be seen along the lines of what some have called “transitional justice.” It looks not only at the justice of discrete decisions - such as deciding the right sentencing for a crime or individual policies for humane treatment in prison - but the justice surrounding the whole process of transitioning individuals, from entrance into the prison system to their return as rehabilitated members of society. Looking at restorative justice this way, many find that more attention should be paid to whether structures are set up in a way that allows those who have supposedly “paid their debt to society” to be given a fair chance to make a living after prison. Legislation that protects former offenders from employment discrimination and requires states to help returning citizens procure photo IDs are important steps, but soaring rates of recidivism suggests that more needs to be done.

However, much of what needs to be done cannot be confined to the responsibilities of government. For example, prisons that aren’t able to afford transformative programs will likely opt for simple punishment (i.e. incarceration) over transformation. Effective transformative justice needs the cooperative work of multiple institutions - churches,nonprofits, even creative entrepreneurship programs. Not only are many of these organizations more competent than government in handling different, especially relational, aspects of transition, but they are also able to bring a more comprehensive view of the process of restorative justice. Churches, for example, can certainly play an especially important role in ensuring the presence of spiritual nurture as essential to bringing holistic restoration to imprisoned members and their families. They can also play an important role in ensuring that restorative justice includes care for victims in their communities, whether through counseling services and mercy ministry, or through facilitating biblically-informed restorative programs that foster community-based reconciliation between victims and offenders.

Christians ought to continue to work to reform our criminal system to work towards restoration. As citizens, it’s our public justice responsibility to hold our governments accountable for humane and fair policies for those imprisoned, which means continuing to ask larger questions about restorative justice, criminal justice, and the role of government in public justice. Our involvement in the work of non-profits, churches, and other institutions is also essential and can go a long way in ensuring that the restoration we seek mirrors the full picture of human dignity.

The work of restorative justice remains daunting; indeed, broader results may often seem a long way off.  The thought often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that “an eye for an eye makes the world go blind” may often serve to discourage rather than motivate us. But for all who have experienced the forgiveness of the Risen Lord, we have the greatest motivation we could ask for in Jesus Christ. For, we know that an even greater restoration is coming soon: “Behold, I am making all things new.”

-Jeremy Chen graduated in 2011 from Princeton University with a Bachelors in Civil Engineering &  a Certificate in Architectural Engineering and is now back in his home state of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.